As one of two undefeated teams left in the Canada West conference, the Puck Pandas’ place at the top of the standings with a perfect 6-0-0 record is a far cry from the way their season started last year.
In 2011, the Pandas began their season with a 2-6-0 record over their first four weekends of play. Heading into the fourth weekend this year, however, the team sits in fourth place in the weekly CIS top 10 rankings after improving their record with a pair of wins last weekend against the last-place University of Saskatchewan Huskies.
The team’s record is as impressive as it can be right now, but Pandas hockey head coach Howie Draper still doesn’t believe his team has yet to reach their full potential.
“There was the first game in Manitoba where I think they took the play to us, but we had better goaltending and ultimately that was the reason why we won that game,” Draper recalled, speaking of the team’s season opener against the U of M Bisons. “I just feel that we haven’t played our best. There were periods where I felt we played the kind of hockey that this team will be capable of, but we’ve got a lot of growth left and we’re going to work hard to reach that potential.”
Alberta’s goaltending this season has led the team to success all throughout this season, even after the opener against Manitoba. Starting goalie Michala Jeffries sits in fourth place in the CanWest in both goals against average and save percentage, despite playing more games than all but two other goalies in the conference. Backup Lindsey Post, meanwhile, made 21 saves for a shutout win in her first start of the season during Saturday’s game against the Huskies.
But the biggest difference that Draper sees in his team’s turnaround performance from last season is the offence’s ability to find the back of the net. Led by fifth-year players Sarah Hilworth and Karla Bourke, who are both tied for second in the conference with nine points, the Pandas as a whole are second in the conference in goals scored.
“This year, we seem to be finding the back of the net, when last year that was a big problem for us in creating opportunity,” Draper said. “Ultimately, we have a faster team and with speed comes more of a threat. Defensively that puts other teams on their heels a little bit and when we have these offensive chances, we seem to be burying them.”
What’s been hurting the Pandas so far this season has been a lack of discipline. The Pandas lead their conference with 72 penalty minutes over the course of their first six games.
The U of A will have a chance to extend their winning streak this weekend when they host the University of Lethbridge Pronghorns, who sit in second-last place in the CanWest, at the Clare Drake Arena on Friday and Saturday night. Despite the ‘Horns’ record falling below .500 early this season at 2-3-1, leaving the team in seventh place, Draper won’t be taking Lethbridge lightly.
“They’ve got some strong defencemen, a big goaltender who has the ability to shut you out if you’re not really trying to ensure you’re putting shots away and creating some time to make sure you can get a little more time to make sure you can get a good shot away,” Draper said.
“They’ve got two or three forwards that have the ability to score goals if you give them the chance, so we’ve got to be disciplined defensively and not give them a lot of opportunities in our own end.”
The first Pandas and Pronghorns game will take at place 7 p.m. on Friday night at the Clare Drake Arena, with the second game happening at 6 p.m. the following night at the Drake.
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